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The Mercenaries and the NGOs


Market extremists argue that the private sector can do almost everything better than governments. The most extreme do not concede the qualifier “almost” and argue that even the police and army should be privatized.

The growth of private security companies (PSC) is generally seen as a result of the success of extreme market arguments.

Less commented upon is a parallel growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in healthcare, education and social services development, especially in the Third World, that was once provided by public institutions.

Interestingly, at least one insider has linked the two. An advisor to ArmorGroup and former NGO employee, James Fennell, explains these organizations similar historical trajectory: “The increasing role of commercial security companies may be viewed in a similar vein to the increased policy and technical input of NGOs over the past two decades to the provision of official relief and development assistance to Southern nations.”

Beyond similar ideological roots, PSCs and NGOs often have more direct ties. Recently, CARE, Save the Children, CARITAS and World Vision all hired PSCs to protect their operations abroad.

Worried about their image Western NGOs generally prefer to conceal their ties to PSCs but a number of technical studies shed light on the topic. One survey found that “every major international humanitarian organization (defined as the UN humanitarian agencies and the largest international NGOs) has paid for armed security in at least one operational context, and approximately 22% of the major humanitarian organizations reported using armed security services during the last year [2007].”

USAID required the NGOs it contracted in post-occupation Iraq to hire private security. According to Corey Levine, a human-rights consultant, “My organization, a small NGO working to build the capacity of Iraq’s civil society, was no exception. Approximately 40 percent of our $60 million budget went to protecting the 15 international staff. Our security company was South African.”

CARE USA also hired former South African military personnel to protect their operation in Iraq. Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, describes the militarization of NGO work in Iraq. “The extent to which things have changed is illustrated by one non-governmental humanitarian organization that hired a PMF [private military firm] in Iraq to protect its facilities and staff, a contract which included the NGOs hiring snipers.”

The occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly increased NGO-PSC ties. In 2006 Singer noted, “Industry representatives estimate that approximately 25 percent of the ‘high-end’ firms that provide armed services and over 50 percent of firms providing logistical support have worked for humanitarian clients.” ArmorGroup, Global Risk Strategies, RONCO, Control Risks Group, Erinys, Hart Security, Lifeguard, MPRI, KROLL, Olive, Southern Cross, Triple Canopy and Blackwater have apparently all worked for humanitarian organizations.

ArmorGroup is an NGO favorite. In 2002 its clients included UNICEF, CARE, CARITAS and the Red Cross. ArmorGroup markets itself to NGOs. They’ve hired a former CARE UK official, James Fennell, and claim to be an industry leader in setting ethical standards. While this may be true, the company has seen its share of scandals. Last August one of its employees shot and killed two colleagues and wounded his Iraqi interpreter. Before joining ArmorGroup Danny Fitzsimons had a number of run-ins with the law in England and was let go by another PSC for unstable behavior. Corporate Mercenaries describes another scandal: “Defence Systems Colombia (DSC), a subsidiary of DSL (now ArmorGroup), was implicated in providing detailed intelligence to the notorious XVIth Brigade of the Colombian army, identifying groups opposed to [oil company] BPs presence in the region of Casanare. This intelligence has been linked to executions and disappearances.”

Southern Cross is another PSC working for aid agencies that portrays itself as an ethical-minded enterprise. But it also has a murky past. Southern Cross was founded in Sierra Leone in 1999 by Cobus Claasens, an officer at Executive Outcomes, which was created by former Special Forces from apartheid South Africa.

Before beyond disbanded Executive Outcomes was the face of all that is wrong with PSCs. Today, that distinction is held by Xe Services, formerly Blackwater, which has its own ties to NGOs. A 2006 Humanitarian Policy Group report claimed Blackwater had been contracted by humanitarian groups and in February Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) Minister, Bashir Bilour, admitted that “Blackwater is present in Pakistan and is operating in the NWFP as well as other areas. Bilour said that Blackwater was engaged in guarding U.S. consulate staff and foreign NGO workers.”

Any group claiming a “humanitarian” or “development” purpose should obviously not hire Blackwater, but where should the line be drawn? Contracting even the most principled PSC opens up a series of ethical questions.

By hiring PSCs are humanitarian organizations endorsing the booming private security business? PSCs are generally keen to discuss their ties to NGOs because they believe it helps “legitimate their business.”

Koenraad Van Brabant asks a more important question. By hiring PSCs are NGOs “contributing to increased wider, public security” or “the privatization of security, whereby those who are able to pay can buy security while others have to live in fear”? NGO personnel may have the means to purchase security, but this is not a luxury afforded to most.

Reliant on contracts from Western governments NGOs often follow the military into war zones. In these settings they are often perceived as hostile agents of an occupying power. As a result they need security.

Is it really any surprise that NGOs, which replace public institutions delivering services turn to PSCs, which do the same?

YVES ENGLER is the co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority. His most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. For more information, go to his website,

Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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